You earwax could indicate how depressed or stressed you are - the science explained

Your earwax could be an indicator of how stressed or depressed you are, a new study has claimed.

Researchers from UCL and King's College London have discovered that earwax is one of the better indicators of levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and have created a new device to measure it which can be used at home.

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The device can take a sample and test quickly, cheaply and effectively, and is able to be used at home without clinical supervision, allowing for medical check-ups while maintaining social distancing amid the pandemic.

What did scientists find?

The study found that cortisol levels found within someone's earwax appear more stable when collected using their new device, making it easier to take a sample and get it tested quickly.

The new measurement could also potentially be used to inform who might or might not benefit from antidepressants.

It could help doctors find better ways of diagnosing psychiatric conditions including depression and stress, according to lead author of the study Dr Andres Herane-Vives.

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What is cortisol?

Cortisol is the hormone which sends out alarm signals to the brain in response to stress.

Known as a person’s ‘fight or flight’ hormone, it can influence almost every system in the body, from how easily you can digest your food, to your body’s immune system and ability to sleep.

However, cortisol’s influence on disorders like anxiety and depression is not yet fully understood.

It is considered a possible biomarker, or object biological measure, for depression, but researchers have struggled to find a way of accurately measuring cortisol levels.

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Dr Herane-Vives, who is based at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, said: “Cortisol sampling is notoriously difficult, as levels of the hormone can fluctuate, so a sample might not be an accurate reflection of a person’s chronic cortisol levels.

“Moreover, sampling methods themselves can induce stress and influence the results.”

How does the new device work?

Originally cortisol was measured through analysing hair samples, which was often time-consuming and expensive, but this new device instead measures levels in earwax.

The device was inspired by honeycomb from bees, as the natural wax is known to be well-preserved and resistant to bacterial contamination. Earwax shares similar properties, making it well suited for this new research method.

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The self-sampling device is similar to a cotton swab, but features a break that stops the swab from going too far into the ear and causing damage.

The pilot study saw 37 participants test different cortisol sampling techniques, with researchers discovering that earwax samples yielded more cortisol than samples from hair. The new technique also proved to be faster and potentially cheaper.

The team is now investigating whether the new device could potentially be used to measure glucose levels from earwax, helping to monitor diabetes and potentially even Covid-19 antibodies.